SWIMNEWS ONLINE: January 1997 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

"I didn't grow up with a dream about Olympic gold," says Penny Heyns, 1996 Olympic 100 and 200 breaststroke gold medallist.

"It's interesting that different people have asked me if I had dreamt about winning at the Olympics. But, the answer is `no,' because in South Africa we were so isolated all those years, I never thought about the Olympic Games

Penny Heyns, 1996 Olympic 100 and 200 breaststroke gold medallist
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

"Even in 1992, when I knew there was a chance we would go, I swam that season thinking `Oh, well! I'll just do the best I can, and if South Africa is invited to participate, and I make the team, I'll go! But even Barcelona wasn't the wonderful, overwhelming experience, that it should have been..."

However, despite Penny's lack of an Olympic dream, her life portents were always connected in a subtle way with gold and water.

For instance, the gold in her two Olympic medals could have been mined in the gold mining town of Springs, where she was born. (Springs is only a few miles east of Johannesburg, the centre of the world's richest gold fields.)

And, when Penny was a year old, her family moved to Amanzimtoti, which, in the Zulu language, means "The Place of Sweet Waters."

"That's quite appropriate," I said to Penny. "The waters have been sweet as far as you are concerned."

"Yes!" said Penny. "Did you know that Dingaan, the Zulu king, gave the site this name, over 150 years ago? Well, this is where the water first called me. I was very, very young, swimming in the sea, and in either our pool or the neighbour's pool. Playing on the sands, and in the rock pools, this was my place. I was a `water baby' I suppose."

"A Stupid Idea"

"When I was seven years old, I told my mother I wanted to race, and swim for the school team. Our neighbour overheard me, and was amused. She told my mother she thought this `a stupid idea.'

"I was only in Class Two, and the school wouldn't let us start swimming until we were in the next class, Standard One, and about eight years old. Nevertheless, I went up to the teacher and asked if I could swim, and I tried out for the team, and made the team. This was my introduction to competitive swimming.

"I think it was around Standard Three that I made the South Coast and Natal Districts team, and then went on to swim in the Natal school trials in order to go to the South African Schools' Championships.

"I was about ten, and until then, I had never swum for a club. I recall always trying to swim a little better in my backyard pool. You know, working on my stroke. My mother's got a good eye for stroke, and she used to help me. She wasn't a swimmer, but I think she just had a talent for teaching."

Early Career

`When I was about twelve or thirteen, I joined the club at Amanzimitoti High School. It consisted of a bunch of parents and teachers who basically just formed their own club."

Penny said that she had no professional coaching until 1988, when Graham du Toit, a former Transvaal swimmer, came to `Toti' (as Amanzimtoti was colloquially called), and he coached her until 1992.

"Graham didn't believe in doing a lot of distance work which, in retrospect, was good for me, because I still feel fairly fresh in terms of swimming and competition. We would go five workouts a week, each one ranging between 3,000 and 3,500 metres, that's all. But in a lot of it, the emphasis was on quality and not quantity. Most of the stuff was all 100% effort work. I think this program served my 100 well, but my 200 suffered. I didn't start seeing results in my 200 breaststroke until after I came to Nebraska.

"In my first nationals in 1989, I came third in the 200, and my second nationals was in Johannesburg in 1990 and I got two silvers in the 100 and the 200, behind Lizelle Peacock, the reigning South African champion."

Beneficial Stroke Changes

"Around 1991, a coach by the name of `Tubby' Lynn came up to me and asked me if I wouldn't give him the chance to look at my stroke and comment on it. He suggested a couple of changes, for instance, using my head more in the forward throw, sort of copying the Barrowman style, but not quite yet, at that stage.

"With just these couple of adjustments, I went on to the nationals in Cape Town in 1991, and broke the South African record in the 100 breaststroke in 1:12.57. This was also where I got my Springbok colours (South African international blazer). I won the 200, and I think I went a 2:40.
"The following year (1992) was the Olympic trials, and in the prelims I went a 1:12.8, and in the finals, I touched behind Sheila Turner. There was a lot of controversy about my being in the team."

"Chase Your Own Dreams"

"I always seemed to find somebody I looked up to, or admired a lot, and initially, it was Julia (Russell). She had been swimming since she was a lot younger. She was my role model. We swam in the same age group."

"And so, all along, even later on in my swimming career, it would have been people like, I suppose most recently, Samantha Riley, because she had broken the world record. So it was always people that I admired and, initially, I wanted to swim and be like them."

Penny said that she later realized that it was important "not to always chase people, because their performances will fluctuate, so rather chase your own goals and dreams.

Penny Heyns, a breaststroker with natural talent
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Cecil Colwin

"Along the way, I learned many lessons, and I suppose these all started when I came to Nebraska in January, '93. I felt my breakthrough, in terms of international competition, would have started with the Commonwealth Games in 1994. That's where I got the bronze medal in the 100 breaststroke."

Asked if she had started to put post-apartheid South Africa on the map with that swim, Penny said "Well, I didn't look at it that way, because I did compete at Barcelona, but I was so young in terms of experience, and I maybe didn't make as much of the opportunity as I should have done.

"But, obviously, when I swam in the Commonwealth Games, I had already had some experience against either international swimmers, or swimmers of a high calibre, through the NCAAs and the American program in general."

More in Control

"When I went to the Commonwealth Games, I was more in control, and had more feasible goals for what I wanted to do, and so, looking at my performances there, I went on to Rome for the World Championships, intending that I possibly could get a medal."

"In the 100 breaststroke, I qualified second going into the final. After that performance, the South African coaches, who were there at the time, said `Oh! You're looking great. Maybe you can win!' I started thinking `Well, maybe I can' but, deep down inside, I knew that I wasn't at that point yet.

"That was a good lesson for me, because I went into the race and, because I so badly wanted to win, I didn't have respect for the other two medals, which would have been better for me, at that stage.

"I dived in, and I swam Samantha's race. I didn't swim my own, and I got sixth place. The girl who got the bronze medal had a time slower than what mine had been in the heats. So, had I swum my own race, I possibly would have had a medal.

"Usually, I would count my strokes, even during a main race, but in Rome, I didn't. I just swam. I went out with Samantha Riley. I tried to stay with her, and then died coming back. Maybe I scrambled through my stroke. I made a lot of mistakes in that race. I didn't swim my own race. I tried to pace it according to everyone else."

At the 1995 Pan Pacs

I told Penny that I had seen her compete against Samantha Riley in the 200 at the 1995 Pan Pacs in Atlanta, and I asked her how she felt about that swim. "Well, I think I knew, going into the Pan Pacs, that the 200, whatever happened, would be a creditable swim, because in our nationals that year, I had gone 2:29 which ranked me first in the world for the season. Of course, my 100 was a much better swim in comparison. I went 1:08.4."

Penny expressed disappointment that Samantha was disqualified in the 100. "I had prepared for the 100 that season, and so, of course, I thought I stood a chance of beating her in the 100, and then she was DQ'd. But, in the 200, I knew that I just wanted to stay as close to her as I could. So I felt that I learned a lot about myself in that race, as well as how to swim the race.

"That 200 was an important race for me; when I came out of it, I knew how much work I needed to do, and where I was in my planning for 1996."

Self-Analysis and "The Perfect Race"

Penny said that she does a lot of thinking about her swimming. After a race, she sits back and analyzes it. "Not to the extent of being tied up with too many little details, but to work out in pretty simple terms, what happened in that race, what I did that was good, what I did that was bad, and where I could learn and improve. I think, every time I race, there's always something I can find, that I can do better."

I questioned Penny closely on this aspect of her swimming. "Do you think you've ever swum a perfect race?"

"No," she said.
"Do you think anybody ever swims a perfect race?"

Quick as a flash, she replied "I think people swim close to perfect. I don't think there's such a thing as perfect, because if you are doing yourself justice, you will always manage to find something you can improve."

I said, "That's a good comment. To be a champion, or a world record holder, you've got to know every tile in the pool. Every stroke you make must have meaning, any stroke that slips the water is a stroke you are not using properly, and it all adds up by the end of the race."

At the Atlanta Olympics

Penny said "That's true. It's a good thing you asked me about a perfect race, because I've often been asked, how come after my swims at the Olympics, didn't I seem that happy?

"Well the reason was that in the 100, I knew that I'd get the record in the morning, although I also expected Amanda Beard and Samantha (Riley) to probably break it in the fifth heat. They were in the fifth heat, and I was in the sixth heat, I think."

"Did that worry you?" I asked.

"No, I expected it," she said. "I was waiting for it to happen. I had the attitude that I would then have to go quicker. Whatever they did, I had to go quicker. I was really surprised when they didn't improve on the time, and I just went out to still swim my best race, and, when I touched I was happy with the time, although I had hoped that when I broke the world record, it would be under 67. Because of that, I thought, well O.K., I can go faster tonight.

"Also, during that race, I remember diving in, and, for the first three or four strokes I didn't feel great. I wasn't on top of the water and I didn't feel as powerful as I would have to liked to have felt. Also, I glided into the turn. So, looking at that record swim, I thought that there was a lot I could still do to improve upon it.

"Unfortunately, in the evening, it wasn't that I was nervous of the other girls. I so badly wanted to go faster, and I just knew that there were things that I could improve to make me swim faster, and it would be ideal if I could do it in the final.

"But, because I was so anxious and eager to break the record again, I rushed my stroke towards the end of my race. Because of this mistake, I came up short at the wall, and that's where that `wonderful' glide came into it. So there are always mistakes..."

Penny said that her 200 race at the Olympics was probably her best ever effort.

"I knew that I could either go out pacing it with Amanda, and then come back and beat her at the end, or I could go out hard, and hang in there. But, I knew that my speed would count in my favour, and so I decided to go out hard. I had to use my speed to benefit my race, and then just try to hang in there."

Streamlining for Speed

Asked what she thought was the strong point in her swimming, Penny said "Mainly my stroke, I think. Apart from that, I think you have to be mentally tough."

Penny Heyns is noted for her unusually straight and streamlined body posture, especially during the underwater phase of her stroke. I asked her to talk about her technique.

"I think that, if you break my stroke up, in the sense of a front and back half, then obviously my kick is my strong point. My kick is a lot stronger than my pull, although, hopefully, my pull is getting stronger every season. But, recently, I was reading an article. I can't remember who wrote it, but the person was saying that the body position is 70% and the arms and legs motion is 30%, and, that's true, because I believe that to be true, not just watching my stroke, but even watching Julia's (Russell) improvement over the last season."

Penny said that female swimmers naturally tend to kick down. "If you work on it, you can kick more directly backward, which is what guys have in their favour. I think it's something to do with their hips. I know that I've been kicking directly backward for a long time. This helps to balance out your body position. And I know Julia's starting to do this now, and I can definitely see an improvement in her stroke."

Noticing that Penny has very long thighs, I asked her "If you were to draw your knees up too much, you would get a lot of resistance. Maybe your natural body build makes you want to keep those thighs streamlined in line with your body, and also to use the strength in those quadriceps muscles?"

"Yes, definitely," she said. "I don't think it's so much strengthwe do a lot of leg workbut it's the efficiency of catching the water. You've got to hold the water, and cut resistance in every way you can."

Mentioning that too many breaststrokers apply too much power in the early part of the kick, I asked Penny to talk about her kick.

"It's difficult to think about it when you're not in the water," she said (demonstrating). "But the way I think about the kick is that, when you bring your feet up, instead of just kicking back, like you would kick-start a motor bike, you want to flex your feet outwards, and almost the whole bottom area of your legs should whip around, rather than just go directly down.

"Without bringing the thigh forward, you want to lift your ankles and the lower part of the legs back. The moment you pike at the hips, and you draw your legs up, then you alter your body position, and then you create resistance. I know they supposedly modelled this after the Barrowman stroke, and the `wave technique.' "

Breaststroke Arm Action

The rest of our conversation on technique went like this:

C: "Now, your arm action; when you start your stroke, and you go into the lateral phase of the pull, what do you do with your hand on the wrist? Do you flex your wrist, or do you keep your hand in line with your forearm?"
P: "Let's just break it down. To start the stroke, you want to keep the palms out, facing outwards. The reason for that is when you start bending your elbows, your elbows will be higher than your hands. A lot of breaststrokers, when they start pulling like this (demonstrates), this happens; the elbows drop."

C: "They get into the `praying mantis' position?"
P: "That's right. So, if you keep the palms of your hands out, that would be the easiest way for one to learn. It's almost like getting your fingers into a crack in the wall, and then you pull yourself through. O.K. So that's the first motion. After that, you want to try and keep your hand and forearm like a paddle. So this is the theory outside the water; I don't know exactly about when you're in the water. Obviously, you've got to get a feel for it, and I think that's where Julia and I are lucky; we tend to have a good feel for our strokes.

"At this point, you start to pitch your hands more downward, and the idea is to then start sculling in, keeping your elbows in front of your chest. And this sculling in motion also lifts your body up, which allows you to breathe. I have the impression that a lot of swimmers are coming up very high, and then going down, and they're causing a lot of resistance.

"What we try to do when we scull in, is to shrug the shoulders and drop the head, almost on the chest. Initially, for breaststrokers trying this stroke, they will feel that their forward vision is somewhat reduced. They can't see, it's a lot more obscure. But when you get stronger, you'll lift up high enough, and you'll still be able to see in front. The lift happens without your making it. If you try to make it happen by using your kick, it will cause you to kick down, and you'll cause a lot of resistance."

C: "A good breaststroke style is like a good butterfly stroke; either it's all right or it's all wrong."
P: "I have the feeling, or the opinion, should I say, that you're either born with a talent for breaststroke or you're not. I mean it's very difficult. You can learn breaststroke, but I don't think you can be a top breaststroker without having a natural talent, a knack for it. It just seems to me that people who are in the top range seem to be more purely breaststrokers, and if they're lucky in that their other strokes are good, they can do I.M. You find people who are freestylers and backstrokers, who tend to be good in the other strokes except breaststroke. The breaststroke swimmer tends to be purely a breaststroker."

C: "Do you ever swim the other strokes?"
P: (Laughs) "Very rarely. I did do the 50 free, and I've done the 200 I.M., but it's only been for college swimming because they needed me. It wasn't something I'd do internationally."

Coach "Tubby" Lynn

I asked Penny to tell me more about "Tubby" Lynn's influence on her swimming.

"I don't know his first name," she said. "Everyone calls him `Tubby,' but he doesn't look tubby. Well, he's definitely had a big influence, and I still keep in contact with him. When I go home, I always go and check my stroke with him. He's been responsible for both my style, and for Julia's (Russell). A lot of the improvements that we've had over the last three years can be attributed to Tubby."

I said "You both have beautiful techniques; very fluent, a pleasure to watch."

Penny said "I think this is due to our background; what we did when we were in South Africa. You know Julia is more accustomed, I think, to the kind of training that we do here, incorporating a lot more, not heavy miles, but distance to the point of doing between 5,000 and 6,000 yards, whereas, before, I used to just do sprints. I never knew what drills were, or anything like that."

Asked her opinion about drills, Penny said "I like them. I think they are necessary, especially my favourite, which is `two kick, one pull.' However, Tubby doesn't really like it much because he thinks you get into a bad habit of dipping too low under the water, and sinking. But I can't do drills slowly. When I do a drill set, I'm just as tired as I would be if I did a normal swimming set. And I think, in order to get the benefit out of the `two-kick, one pull' drill, you have to go hard, otherwise you do tend to sink, and that's going to start spoiling your timing."

Coach Jan Bidrman

Asked about the difference in her training since arriving in Nebraska, and whether she did more distance work, Penny said "It was always a steady increase each season. When I first came to Nebraska, I swam with my coach's wife, Amy Tidball, before they got married. She was a freestyle swimmer. During that season, I got accustomed to swimming a little more distance, but nothing extreme, and just really getting settled in the U.S."

Penny said that when she returned home to South Africa for the summer, she worked out a great deal with Tubby. "I think it was during that period of time that I really caught on to what I was supposed to be doing with my stroke. That was between May and August, 1993.

"So, it was during that summer period that I worked on my stroke and caught on to all Tubby's ideas. When I got back to Nebraska, it was still one semester before Julia would join us. At that stage I was the only female breaststroker on the team.

"There were two other male breaststrokers on the team, and they happened to be European, so they gave those swimmers to Jan (Bidrman). Jan wasn't an official coach at that stage. He was just a grad assistant, in international business, I think. He was studying at the University."

"I had a choice of swimming with Jan, half a season, and the other half with Keith Moore, the sprint coach, and I said to them that I would prefer to swim with one or the other for the whole season. I don't want to chop and change.

"Then I spoke to Jan, and I felt very comfortable with his philosophies about swimming, and I knew that he had a lot of experience as an international swimmer himself. So I felt I had the confidence in him as a coach."

Asked to describe Jan Bidrman's coaching philosophy, Penny said "Well, I think, first of all, Jan isn't just the kind of coach who stands on deck and dictates to you what to do. He taught me how to get to know myself as a swimmer, basically, to be independent of the coach, although still appreciate advice and whatever, which I think is very important. He cares about the swimmers. He's not just a coach, he's a friend.

"The first thing he said to me when we met each other and we decided he would coach me, is that, if I'm willing to give 100%, he'll give a 100%. But it's all up to me. The committment must come from me. He doesn't want me to come to the pool because he's standing there. I must come because it's from me. And I really appreciated that honesty. I knew then, if I put in all the effort, then he would be there for me."

"So, in other words, it would not be a one way trade."
"Yes. It's a two-way relationship, and I really appreciated that honesty. So I started swimming with Jan that season, and we were actually fortunate. It's a pity though for the other two swimmers, but the one was injured, and the other went home for a period of time. So I was the only swimmer swimming with Jan at the time, and that allowed him to really just see what I needed, and get to know me as a swimmer.

"At the same time, I got the work done that I needed to get done. We slowly started setting goals each season, and, every season, Jan believed that I needed to do something different to retain my interest, and also to detect scope for improvement. In so doing, one of the things was to increase the distance.

"Also, by the '94 / '95 season, I started doing breaststroke pulling with paddles. Up until then, I hadn't (used them). This last college season, I worked a lot more with stretch cords, swimming against the resistance. Each season, we've thrown in something as an experiment. It also breaks the monotony, and makes it fun.

"We experimented with introducing new items to the program, but not too much, always still maintaining the control. And, you know, I always feel I have the freedom with Jan to say that, at a certain point of my training, `I'm sorry, maybe I just need a week away from everyone. I'll see you again in a week.' And he trusts me enough to know that I'm only doing it because I believe it's best for me and, if he says to me `O.K. I agree you should do it,' then I know that I'm on the right track."

The University of Nebraska's Media and Recruiting Guide quotes Jan Bidrman's Coaching Philosophy as follows: "Athletes, in co-operation with their coaches, need to form their opinions about training and competition. Only when a coach and an athlete work together can an ultimate goal be accomplished."

A Greater Realization of Self

I suggested to Penny that what Bidrman had helped her to achieve was really a greater realization of self. This came out in everything she said in this interview.

"Yes, that's so," Penny agreed. "I think it's really something he has imparted to us. You know, it's also up to the swimmer though. Julia and I were talking, and it seems that the girls in the squad have always performed better than the guys in the last two seasons, but I think it is just because we have taken what he has given us, and used it."

I comment "A lot of people think that, because you have a coach, you automatically get better. The coach can only tell you what to do, and how to do it, and, in the final criterion, something has to come from the swimmer."

Penny agreed "Definitely, and I think, like you said, sometimes I think that I think too much about my swimming and my stroke, and everything."

"How so?"
"Well, I'm inclined to do so, at this period of my training (early season). It's the worst for me always, because I'm impatient. I want everything to happen now. I know what I need to do in my stroke."

"You don't look impatient!"
"I'm getting more control over it these days, Penny laughed. "But during the last college season, it was like the Devil was chasing me."

"You're not swimming college anymore?"
"No, I'm not," Penny confirmed.

Penny Heyns Going to Calgary?

I had heard a rumour that Penny may come to Canada, and I asked her if that was correct.

"I may. Jan's got the head coach position at Calgary. And, right now, I think the best thing for both him, and the swimmers in the team at Calgary, and for me, is that he goes ahead, until May, on his own. That gives him the opportunity to develop a relationship with the swimmers there, without me being around. And then, Julia may also, I don't know, go up for a while in the summer, but I'm definitely going to go up in the summer for a while, and swim with Jan."

"Will you become affiliated to a Canadian club, or am I going ahead of the piece?" I asked Penny.

"I don't know yet. I'll see what it's like in Calgary. I don't want to just jump into a decision and move. I want to first see what it's like, and then I'll decide. There are a lot of pro's to moving, and there are a couple of things I'm not sure about. For instance, if I move to Canada, I leave behind a very big support base in Lincoln. Jan's biggest concern is that I would leave behind a lot of friends, because there are a lot of South Africans there."

Meets President Nelson Mandela

I asked Penny how important it was for her to represent South Africa in international competition. She said "I think, as I'm growing older, and realizing the privilege of making these international teams, it's becoming more and more important. It really became important to me after I had met President Nelson Mandela. Actually I met him in May '95 briefly at the Presidential Sports Awards, and then this year (in March, 1996). After I had broken the world record, they flew me down, and I met him and spoke to him at a private tea for about half an hour.

"First of all, he shook my hand, and said he'd never wash his hand again. So I said I'd never wash mine! Then he wanted to introduce me to his grandson; that was just a joke, but he indicated that he was very pleased with all the young athletes in the country, and that we were ambassadors, and that it was our responsibility to carry ourselves well in international arenas of sport. Also he told me that he was pleased with the world record, and wished me the best of luck for the Olympic Games, and I said "Well, you know I'm now more inspired to go on, and try and win the gold."

The Aftermath of Victory

Penny commented on the public reaction when she returned to South Africa, having won at the Olympics. "The hype was a bit of a surprise to me. Already, I had got a feel for what it might be like while I was still in Atlanta, because the media went quite wild, and there was this building they called The Pavilion, just outside the village. It was like "South Africa House," and I was forever being asked to be there.

"It was either media, or it was somebody who suddenly decided they would be a great agent for me. That was the most overwhelming thing for me at the time, that people were suddenly talking money, and things that I had never been accustomed to, and people were saying `Strike while the iron's hot,' and `You've got to make these decisions now.' I didn't know which way to turn, and my parents didn't really know either. But, fortunately, I had some people from Nebraska there who helped me and advised me, and it wasn't too bad.

"Because of that hype, I really expected it would be bad when I got home. I really expected the worst, I think, and, when I got there, I just dealt with it, one day at a time. It was wonderful when we arrived at the airport, the whole of Johannesburg International Airport was full of people. The response was great. The peopleI think more the black peopletheir response to our achievements was just wonderful, and we had a ticker tape parade through the streets of Johannesburg on the second day we were back, and then the medal winners also had a bit of a banquet and after that, we were driven to Pretoria where we met President Nelson Mandela.

"It was just amazing. I mean it was something. I can't explain it, even now, after being in America for a month, and going back. I thought it would have died down, and it really was a surprise. When I got back home, people were still talking about the Olympics, and, especially about the swim team. I think they realised that the achievements of the swimmers were remarkable. They said, per capita, we did better than any country in the world."

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